Are you one of those ‘work from home’ people who insists on wearing your favourite pyjamas nearly all day? Well, your choice of ‘comfort’ clothing is yours! But here’s a ‘think piece’ about your being a ‘revolutionary’ work-from-home worker!
Demographer Bernard Salt reports that Covid may have pushed ‘work from home’ workers from 5 per cent of the workforce to some 50 per cent. He expects, however, that figure to level out at around 15 per cent as a long-term trend. Assuming he’s correct, this 10 per cent rise in the ‘work from home’ movement is a dramatic shift in the work environment.
This surge in the ‘work from home’ movement is almost certain to generate a major lift in the number of self-employed in Australia.
Having grasped this, let’s quickly dismiss the bleatings of CBD property developers. Their financial self-interest is on naked display as they worry about sunk and future financial investment in CBD office space.
Bernard Salt indicates that the bleatings can be ignored in any case because the natural increase in office worker numbers will rejuvenate CBD office space within a few short years.
But the bigger issues relate to workers’ lifestyle choices, the worker ‘liberation’ delivered by technology and the massive but un-recorded or un-diagnosed productivity boom embedded in ‘work from home’.
In its simplest form, the productivity boom is readily understood when considering home-to-work travel times. If ‘travel’ time from the bedroom to the home office is (say) two minutes, that utterly trounces the 1–2 hours many office workers spend traveling to and from a CBD site. The clear productivity increase is staggering. But because the direct benefit is to the worker and not directly to the ‘firm’, statisticians don’t know how to measure it. And office ‘bosses’ may then say, ‘if the firm doesn’t directly benefit, what use is this extra productivity?’
But there’s more. Home office work challenges the management philosophies and practices underpinning the office environment of the last 50–60 years.
The advent of the ‘knowledge worker’ notion, well in vogue this century, has shifted perceptions about the office environment. Current thinking is that office workers need to have a framework for exercising individual judgment if productivity is to be increased. Enter the human resource professionals and their obsession with creating office ‘culture’.
This HR-driven idea is that If the (HR) bosses can create the right culture, workers will exercise individual judgement (but still within the boss’s controlled culture) and the firm will grab the productivity benefits. But that ‘control through culture’ has always been a line-of-sight exercise. If the (HR) boss can’t see the worker, where’s the control?
Working from home shakes those ideas up big time. For bosses it’s really scary. How do you ‘control’ the company culture when the home ‘office’ worker takes an ‘unauthorised’ break to do the ironing or pick up the children from school? That’s the challenge at one level.
There are deeper institutional challenges. Employee contracts are ‘industrial instruments’ modelled entirely on factory concepts. Worker remuneration is overwhelmingly time-based, regulated through archaic, ponderous quasi-courts.
Such institutional processes seek to regulate and control human interactions in relation to equal opportunity, discrimination and the like. Work safety laws are also predicated on a factory-style assumption that bosses (however defined) control everything and that therefore bosses must be responsible for any safety breaches.
But consider this example: How should work safety laws be applied if a home worker trips over the family dog and breaks an arm? Is the worker’s boss liable? This is not a silly issue to consider. Precedent has already been set.
New tenancy laws in Victoria now require electricians to check and certify electrical appliances in tenanted homes every two years. So a domestic toaster malfunction is now the ‘fault’ of the landlord. Will work safety regulations move to require bosses to pay for and check electrical safety in home workers’ homes?
The point is that once people work from home, the idea of that person being a controlled employee becomes a nonsense. Working from home means that a person exercises self-control in nearly every conceivable way. This is the complete opposite of every institutional, legal and behavioural idea of the ‘employee’ worker.
But self-control is everything that being ‘self-employed’ is about. Being a ‘work from home’ worker is a natural fit with being a self-employed independent contractor.
But watch out for the responses of the HR professionals, the ‘controlling’ bosses, the CBD property developers and the many institutions that regulate the work environment. They are very likely to conduct major pushbacks.